Liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures, observes SC bench

New Delhi:

CJI Dipak Misra on Wednesday demanded that the Maharashtra police present their “best evidence” against the five arrested activists who have moved the court against their “random” arrests which they claim was designed to quell dissidence in the country. The bench, which felt that “liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures” will continue hearing the case on Thursday.

Those arrested were lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj, journalist Gautam Naulakha, poet Varavara Rao, lecturer Vernon Gonsalves and lawyer and human rights activist Arun Ferriera. They have been charged under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for alleged links with banned Naxal outfit CPI (Maoist) with very little chance of being released on bail. “Where is the material for the arrests? The case diary should have all the allegations,” CJI Misra, who was heading a three-judge bench, said at one point. “You should place your best evidence first,” he told ASG Tushar Mehta at another point in the hearing.

Mehta claimed that the activists had been part of a plot to overthrow the government, a plot hatched by the Maoists. He said former PM Manmohan Singh and finance minister P Chidambaram figured in the letters allegedly written by the activists on the plot, a claim contested by the activists.

When Mehta spoke of the activists planning “frequent protests which will lead to chaos and breakdown of law and order”, Justice DY Chandrachud spoke of the need to distinguish between actively subverting a democratically-elected government and fostering dissidence. “We are also criticised. Your shoulders must be robust and strong enough to deal with it.”

Harish Salve appearing for the complainant in the case then said that the activists had a “mind-set which does not square with the Constitution”. “The top court will have to examine if they crossed a line (into criminality, complicity).” Justice Chandrachud then said that since the case involved liberty of citizens, the court would examine the material with a “hawk’s eye”. “Liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures.”

Earlier, he demanded to know how government officials were witnesses in the case. The top court had on August 29, 2018, ordered that the five arrested be placed under house arrest rather than be taken into custody till the state gave a formal explanation to the court on the arrests.

Among those who had challenged their arrests were Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Maja Daruwala, Devaki Jain and Satish Deshpande. They had claimed that the random arrests of “professionals with impeccable educational qualifications” was meant to quell dissent. Their petition was argued by senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The wife of well-known Nagpur lawyer Surendra Gadling later moved court seeking parity in treatment for him and four other activists arrested earlier in June over their suspected Maoist links. The other four are professor Shoma Sen, activist Rona Wilson who heads an organisation known as the committee for release of political prisoners, Marathi poet Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raut who has been protesting displacement of people by illegal mining in Maharashtra.

Source ET